EU opposition builds to new Russian-German gas pipeline

Critics say Baltic project would boost Kremlin influence in eastern Europe

Germany and Russia face growing opposition to their plans for a major new gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that critics say would strengthen the Kremlin's hand in energy dealings with the European Union and neighbours such as Ukraine.

Thirteen EU states have called on the European Commission to negotiate with Moscow over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite German chancellor Angela Merkel's insistence that the purely "economic project" does not need approval from Brussels.

German, French, Dutch and Austrian firms are helping to finance the €9.5 billion scheme led by Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom, which is intended to double the volume of Russian gas pumped to Germany via the Baltic from 2019.

Critics of the plan include Nordic, Baltic and east European states, which believe it runs counter to a long-stated EU ambition to reduce dependence on Russian fuel and to prevent Moscow using energy supplies for political leverage.

Nord Stream 2 would allow Russia to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine – depriving the country of fuel and lucrative gas transit fees – and bypass EU members in eastern Europe, while maintaining the flow to major customers such as Germany.

Donald Tusk said Nord Stream 2 would allow Moscow "to close down the transit route through Ukraine, leaving our partners at Russia's mercy"

At a meeting of EU energy ministers in Monday, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said "we had 13 delegations intervening, with all of them being supportive of the commission's approach" to negotiating with Russia.

In a letter to the commission leaked this month, European Council president Donald Tusk said Nord Stream 2 would allow Moscow "to close down the transit route through Ukraine, leaving our partners at Russia's mercy".

The former Polish prime minister said it would also make the EU “more dependent on Russian supplies and it will concentrate gas transit along the existing route. Also, it will strengthen Gazprom’s position as the EU’s dominant supplier. In short, it will not serve the best European interest.”

Soviet legacy

The Baltic states are frustrated that Germany appears willing to allow its firms to deepen energy co-operation with Russia while they are striving to break away from power networks that are a legacy of five decades of Soviet occupation.

"We don't believe it's a viable economic project. We believe it's a political project and runs contrary to the security interest of the region," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics said.

The view was echoed by Sven Mikser, his Estonian counterpart, who urged the EU to ensure that "Russia's ability to apply pressure to individual countries in Europe is not strengthened by the creation of new infrastructure and distribution systems".

Russia caters for about one-third of the EU's gas needs, but Poland and Lithuania now receive liquefied natural gas via terminals on the Baltic coast.

The US wants to boost its exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe, and Moscow said this ambition was behind a bill on new sanctions against Russia that the US Senate passed last week.

The bill threatens to punish non-Russian firms that co-operate with Russia on export pipelines such as Nord Stream 2, and it drew an angry response from German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian chancellor Christian Kern.

They denounced “the threat of illegal extra-territorial sanctions being imposed on European companies that are participating in efforts to expand Europe’s energy supply network.”

“It would not only be highly regrettable but would also diminish the effectiveness of our stance on the conflict in Ukraine, if we were to no longer take joint action, and if completely separate interests were to prevail, such as the US’s economic pursuits in the field of gas exports,” they added.